Chicago’s Belt Railway More Efficient

August 12, 2015

The Wall Street Journal’s Bob Tita provides an in-depth overview of the critical Belt Railway in Chicago which controls most of the railroad traffic in and out of the nation’s busiest railroad town. The Belt Railway only handles freight cars, but its efficiency and ability to move trains ultimately controls the fluidity of Chicago’s railroads, including passenger trains.

Better communication with railroads speeds traffic through key railroad junction

BEDFORD PARK, Ill.—The warren of winding tracks here is a central front in the rail industry’s push to become a more efficient mover of time-sensitive freight.

Though little-known, Belt Railway Co. oversees a critical junction for the North American railroad industry where the six largest railroads in the U.S. and Canada converge. Those railroads exchange cars with each other here in the Belt’s sprawling Clearing Yard just outside of Chicago, enabling freight to move across the U.S. by collecting cars headed to the same destinations and assembling them into new trains. The yard’s 265 miles of tracks and switches handle more than a million railcars a year, making it the largest facility of its kind in North America.

When it works, the Belt is a model of cooperation between fiercely competitive railroads. But when the Belt’s operation seizes up, it becomes a clot in the circulatory system of national commerce that can back trains up as far away as western Canada and Ohio.

Since a near-collapse of rail service in Chicago during the winter of 2013-2014, managers for the Belt have improved communication with counterparts at the freight railroads and sharpened operations to move trains in and out of the Clearing Yard. The Belt also has benefited from a boost in railroads’ capital spending, including about $16 billion in 2014—about a third more than in 2011.

With 1,200 new and rebuilt locomotives since 2012, railroads are getting trains in or out of the Clearing Yard and through Chicago faster and reducing clogs from trains waiting for crews or locomotives.

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